The Gatsby Affair; Scott, Zelda and the Betrayal That Framed An American Classic
1. After spending so many years writing your first biography of the Fitzgeralds, Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom, were you planning to write a second book about them?
Absolutely not. I had no plans to write further on the couple until I received a letter from Edouard Jozan’s daughter, Martine, who, after reading my last book on the couple, wrote and said, “ As I read your book, it made me understand how Zelda could have fascinated my father… and how he must have been amused and ready to play.” That was it. I responded to her, and now fifteen years later, here is the book.
2. When you say that this book is markedly different from other biographies of the Fitzgeralds, examining the couple in terms of psychological health and pathology, what exactly do you mean?
What I’m suggesting is that it explores the private motives behind public actions, explaining not only what happened, but why. For example, Zelda misjudged the French pilot’s intentions and thought he would run away with her. She was willing to abandon her husband and young daughter for him. And yet, that was not his intention at all. I explain how and why this misconception occurred.
3. In what ways did Zelda’s affair with Jozan influence the Fitzgeralds’ life and work, and in particular the writing of The Great Gatsby?
But for Zelda’s reckless affair with Jozan, Scott’s classic novel might be less about betrayal and more about the chimera of lost illusions. As it stands, it’s a tale of adultery and deception, mirroring what was happening in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage during the summer of 1924. When Edouard Jozan encountered Scott, and his iconic wife, Zelda, on the beach in San Raphael, he could never have known, nor they, how their lives inexorably would be changed forever.
4. You write that sometimes a subject chooses its author and not the other way around. How did that work in relation to your current book, The Gatsby Affair?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I had no intention of writing further on the Fitzgeralds. But after hearing from Martine Jozan, and understanding how important the information and resources were that she was willing to share, I felt compelled to stop what I was writing and instead turn to this episode. What followed was an exchange over many years during which I was given wide access to Jozan family papers, photographs and archival material which shed light on this man for whom Zelda was prepared to abandon her marriage.
5. Your book upends what people previously have thought about the Fitzgeralds’ legendary marriage. Their relationship has always been romanticized as one of the great love stories of all time. Are you saying this isn’t true?
In a way, yes. The Fitzgeralds were intellectually compatible, but Zelda was never physically attracted to Scott and always fantasized about meeting someone like Jozan. Extraordinarily handsome, charismatic and powerful, from the moment he first gazed at her, she did not look away.
6. What do you mean when you compare Zelda’s betrayal with Jozan to a Greek tragedy in which calamitous forces get released?
As in Greek tragedies, where an event causes catastrophic future circumstances, Zelda’s affair with the pilot set into motion a series of dire outcomes that triggered a profound depression that culminated in her first suicide attempt just weeks after Jozan’s abandonment. By the time she questioned how much suffering a heart can hold, she had ample time to experience its pain.
7. Zelda was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1930, but you counter that notion in this new book. What do you think was wrong with her?
Depressed for sure, and riddled with anxiety. And certainly manic at times. But these are broad labels that frequently get over-used and today are beginning to get seriously questioned. In 1929, after an afternoon’s consultation, she was reduced to the psychiatric label of Schizophrenia, a diagnostic strait jacket that condemned her to a life in mental hospitals. Initially, she probably was experiencing a serious depressive episode, poisoned by drink and suffering from an alcohol-induced psychosis.
8. How did the writing of The Great Gatsby dramatically alter after Zelda’s betrayal with the French pilot?
What started out as a novel about lost illusions became a story of adultery and betrayal, and Jay Gatsby, initially based on Jozan, turned into an amalgam of Scott and the pilot. Were it not for Zelda’s affair, Scott’s classic would be a different novel and Daisy Buchanan an altered character.
9. There is a large section of your book dealing with Zelda’s multiple incarcerations in which you question whether she was crazy in the first place, or victimized by a system diagnosed to control unruly women. Are you suggesting men were at the helm here trying to rein in females?
During the 1930’s, asylums were filled with women brought there by husbands, fathers or brothers, and Schizophrenia became to the 20th Century what Hysteria had been to the 19th. Along with numerous other wives, daughters and sisters, Zelda got trapped in this new diagnosis, and once the label of “madness” was conferred, it was impossible to convince others of her sanity. Several of Zelda’s American psychiatrists had studied together in Switzerland, and while some questioned her diagnosis, medical camaraderie trumped patient needs. The psychiatric field was dominated entirely by men and patients predominantly were female. What does that suggest to you?
10. You write that Zelda’s confinement to mental institutions didn’t help, only exacerbated pre-existing conditions and precipitated new ones, But, what else in 1930 could have been done for her except hospitalization? After all, we didn’t have psycho-tropic drugs like Prozac or Zoloft.
Well, certainly not putting her in a Swiss mental hospital where most doctors could not fluently speak English, and those who did, had difficulty understanding Zelda’s southern accent. The support staff of nurses, orderlies and handlers certainly were not English speakers. In a foreign country, away from family, friends and everything familiar, Zelda was in dangerous territory. What else could Scott have done? Probably gotten her back to family in Montgomery where she might have been nursed back to stability over time. Or, at least somewhere where English was spoken. In Great Britain, for example, the Quakers were advocating “Moral Treatment” for neuroses, treating patients with dignity and compassion, involving them in decisions about their care. In pastoral settings, they emphasized occupational, creative and horticultural therapies, never punishment.
11. In what ways did Zelda’s infidelity with Jozan become turning point in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage?
There had been casual affairs on both sides before. But this was different. It was the second time Fitzgerald had been vanquished by a more powerful suitor. His first love, the Chicago heiress Ginevra King, also had rejected him for a Naval pilot. That Zelda was prepared to abandon her family for Jozan came as a devastating blow to Fitzgerald, who never ceased agonizing over the betrayal or punishing her for it.
12. In the book, you call Zelda’s infatuation with the pilot “une coupe de foudre,” translated from the French as a thunderbolt of emotion or stroke of lightning. It happens when instantaneous love occurs, but do you really think love at first sight exists?
I do. And when it happens, you know it. Life is happenstance, and sometimes chance meetings change it forever. Despite being a cliché, love at first sight exists, and when it appears like a stroke of lightning, as the French say, “ une coupe de foudre,” there is no turning away. Instantly and without artifice, the connection was made; Jozan was prepared to love, and Zelda, a willing accomplice.
13. I read somewhere that one of your earlier titles for this book was Engendered Fate, referring back to Plutarch, grand-daddy of all biographers. What exactly did you have in mind by that description?
That book title, which I liked a lot, was a little too esoteric for general readers, and harkens back to Plutarch, who, interpreting Plato’s essay on “Fate,” wrote, that he took Plato’s meaning to suggest three elements in Providence, how the universe is directed and humanity’s place in it. The first he called engendered fate, that which is caused entirely by the individual, the second, that caused entirely by outside forces, and the third, combining that which is in our power, with the element of chance. In the Jozan/Zelda episode, Zelda engendered the dire consequences that followed by becoming involved with the pilot.
14. Zelda was prepared to leave Scott and her daughter for Jozan. Was he as serious about being with her in a committed relationship?
No. She misjudged his intentions. He was ambition driven, had the goal of becoming an Admiral by 50; (it took him until 52) and was not prepared to ruin his career by running away with another man’s wife. He wanted a mistress, not a wife.
15. You liken Schizophrenia to Hysteria, suggesting it was a 20th Century re-naming of that 19th Century disorder, an ailment primarily affecting women. And also, that it became the most common psychological diagnosis for women during the 1930’s. Have we renamed Schizophrenia today to make it a more contemporary malady?
Today we might label it a major depressive disorder, bi-polar illness, or manic depression, but these diagnoses are very fluid, lap over into one another, and continually fall in and out of favor. It’s a crap shoot. A patient might see three different psychiatrists and come away with three different diagnoses. Best, if you can, to stay away from the mind doctors.
16. The Fitzgeralds were notorious drinkers, and you propose that Zelda was poisoned by alcohol, in 1929 suffering from an alcohol-induced psychosis. How so?
During Prohibition which ran for thirteen years, from 1920-1933, alcohol manufacture was unregulated and people were poisoned regularly. Bootlegged whiskeys and gins often made people sick, and liquor produced in illegal stills frequently came tainted with metals and other toxic materials. During the Twenties, the Fitzgeralds were heavy drinkers and newspapers filled with reports about alcohol-induced hallucinations and poisonings.
17. Simple as that, you write, there was before Jozan and after. What precisely are you suggesting?
For Zelda there was life before Jozan and after. Nothing ever was the same after he left. He was the love of her life and not Scott. Zelda was desperate for affection when she met the pilot, and he ready to oblige. It was Zelda’s first real sexual awakening, brimming with passion and excitement. He was a powerful, sexual male, whereas Scott was not. More drawn to him than to any man previously, she gave no thought to consequences, and her infidelity became a turning point in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage.
18. Since your book contradicts the notion that it was Jozan, not Scott, who was Zelda’s great love, how do other Fitzgerald scholars feel about this controversial assertion?
As you might imagine, it gets disputed, especially when other biographers have spent careers writing about the Fitzgeralds as a legendary, romantic couple. Any time you write outside the box, you have to take the heat.
19. Zelda and Scott had many affairs during their marriage. Why was this one different?
Primarily, because Zelda asked Scott for a divorce and was prepared to abandon him and their daughter for the Frenchman. This was entirely different from her affair with George Jean Nathan or Scott’s Princeton friends. Those were flirtations, dalliances; this was serious.
20. Scott admitted that Jay Gatsby initially was based on Jozan, and because he didn’t know the Frenchman well, his hero became a “blurred” figure. Do you think that is a failing in Fitzgerald’s classic novel?
I do. And so did Scott. Jozan was someone he barely knew, which rendered him an obscure protagonist, something about which readers often have commented. And Fitzgerald admitted to fellow writer, John Peale Bishop, that Gatsby was a patchy figure because he never saw him clearly, starting off as Jozan, and then turning into an amalgam of himself with the Frenchman---a synthetic.
21. Jozan has always been a mysterious figure in the Fitzgeralds’ story. How were you able to uncover all the material about him that appears in this book?
Through his daughter, Martine, I was put in touch with people who either knew Jozan personally, or knew about him, and were able to provide previously unknown biographical material. Without her help, the book could never have been written, and I always believed it was an important story to tell.
22. You cite three pivotal events in Zelda’s life: an unwanted sexual encounter when she was a teenager, her tumultuous marriage to Fitzgerald, and her disastrous affair with Jozan, events all linked to men.Considering the current “Me Too” movement, does Zelda seem like a prime example of a woman caught up in the cycle of male dominance?
Sure does. Like most women of her region and generation, ( she grew up in the South in the teens: (1910-1920,) Zelda lived in a world tightly controlled by men, and not being educated, or experienced in ways of the world, she was a pawn to those males. It astonishes me that she achieved as much as she did. That’s what drew me to her in the first place.
23. You’ve spent a life time writing about Zelda Fitzgerald. What initially brought you to this subject, and has your opinion of her altered over the years?
I first encountered Zelda in high school when I was introduced to Fitzgerald through a television adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Playhouse 90, with Robert Ryan as Jay Gatsby and Jean Crain as Daisy. An impressionable teenager, I was struck by the poignancy of Gatsby’s romantic idealization of Daisy and intensity of his love. I went to the local library to borrow the novel and Arthur Mizener’s biography of Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise. After reading both, it was Zelda whom I found most intriguing, my interest heightened by Mizener’s omission of Zelda’s story after Fitzgerald’s death. By the time Mizener corrected the omission in a later edition, I was well along in my own investigation of her life. What always fascinated me about Zelda, then as now, was her resilience, talent and determination never to give up.
24. Do you think, had she been able to marry Edouard Jozan, that Zelda might have lived a happier life?
Interesting question. Certainly a different life. She would have been the wife of a French Naval officer with the social obligations that world involves, living in a foreign culture, actually many foreign cultures, all over the world. I can’t imagine it, and doubt Zelda was thinking that far ahead, only enjoying the passion of the moment.
25. How critical a factor to Zelda’s breakdown was Fitzgerald’s alcoholism?
Paramount. Zelda’s psychiatrists always viewed Scott as part of the problem, and believed that unless he relinquished alcohol, that she never would be able to recover. But, he had started drinking heavily in his early teens, and was already alcoholic when they married, so stopping was a dim prospect. It killed him at 44.
26. As part of today’s “Me Too” movement, how might Zelda have responded to an abusive and alcoholic husband?
Become educated, found a way to make her own living, gone to Alanon, formed a strong support group, divorced Fitzgerald, and perhaps sought a female partner, having had her fill of men.
27. Given that Zelda worked so hard to become an accomplished dancer, why, when she got her big opportunity to dance with a professional company, did she turn it down?
She was too frightened to go to Naples, Italy alone. Scott was forbidding her to accept the offer, wouldn’t let their daughter accompany her, threatened divorce, and she was not strong enough to head off on her own. She also misunderstood the importance of the offer and how professional the Naples Opera Ballet company actually was.
28. Was she an accomplished ballet dancer, or as Fitzgerald carped, only an “amateur.”
Something in between. She was better than amateur, Scott’s put down of her skills, but needed the practical experience of dancing with an actual company and refining her technique. No doubt, had she accepted the Naples offer, she could have become an accomplished ballet dancer.
29. After all these years writing about the Fitzgeralds, do you look at them any differently than when you first started writing about them?
I see their marriage in all its complexity, no easy answers or solutions, and outcomes in their lives, a result of early influences and vagaries of chance, luck and destiny. Like us all, they were frail humans, despite the resilience both showed.
30. You met and interviewed Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, the Fitzgerald’s daughter and only child. Given the chaotic upbringing she endured, how do you think that affected her?
It irreparably damaged her. After I interviewed her in Washington, D.C., she wrote me and said, “ I hate talking about my parents. I suppose it is foolish and possibly a $20,000 psychoanalysis would clear it up, though I doubt it. I think probably most people who had a grubby growing up feel this way, except they can usually get away with not talking about it. I can’t---I’m surrounded on all sides by it. Call it a kind of claustrophobia if you will. It was perfectly terrible, that’s all, and I just barely survived it.”
31. Zelda’s resilience comes out clearly in this book. From where did she draw upon this extraordinary strength?
I believe she inherited this characteristic from her father, a highly intelligent individual, (Valedictorian of his class) and Alabama Supreme Court judge, referred to as “the brains of the Bar.” She was descended from a long line of civic leaders on both her mother and father’s side. Although Zelda only was a high school graduate with no real education, having paid scant attention in secondary school, she was smarter than Fitzgerald and with a much stronger depth of character.
32. As embodiment of the flapper, Zelda has become an iconic figure of seemingly endless fascination.Biographers never seem to tire of writing new books about her, and readers continually want to hear more details about her life. Why do you think this has been the case?
Highly original, unique and talented, as you suggest, she has become an iconic heroine of enormous popularity, emblematic of her era, an individual possessing emotional impact about whom on people never tire of reading.
33. You titled your last book about the Fitzgeralds, Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom, a direct quotation from Zelda. What was she suggesting by that epigram?
That the only way out was through the insanity by which she was labeled.
34. At one point, Zelda accused Scott of putting her in an institution to rid himself of a problem. Is there any truth to this?
In 1929, when Fitzgerald and Zelda’s brother-in-law, Newman Smith, drove her to the mental hospital in Switzerland, she had just tried to kill herself, and Scott was at wit’s end. He did not know what to do with her. His only thought was to pay someone else to get her well. In this sense, yes, he was trying to rid himself of a problem, and once committed and diagnosed Schizoid, Zelda’s path was set. Though she battled for freedom from then on, with a justified sense of the wrong she was suffering, she ultimately realized she could not replace what psychiatrists had stolen from her.
35. In her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda’s heroine is a strong, intelligent, creative woman. Is this the person Zelda might have been, had she not married Fitzgerald?
In part, yes. Alabama is Zelda before Scott entered her life, but also the result of that marriage with the opportunities it afforded. Through writing this novel, she hoped to reclaim her earlier personality and surface from mental illness, like the proverbial salamander about which I write, that could shed its skin and emerge from fire.